Visitors! Danger!

Lorraine Daston

  • Charles Darwin. Vol. II: The Power of Place by Janet Browne
    Cape, 591 pp, £25.00, November 2002, ISBN 0 224 04212 2

Among the icons of science, Newton is admired and Einstein revered, but Darwin is liked. This is rather puzzling on the face of it. His theories concerning organic evolution, and the satellite doctrines that have attached themselves to his name – Social Darwinisms of the political Right and Left, eugenics, robber-baron capitalism, anarchism, sociobiology – haven’t ceased to be controversial since the publication in 1859 of his On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. More than a century later, Darwin’s name continues to divide not only the devout from the doubting, but also liberals from conservatives and biologists from social scientists. Various Darwinisms stand accused of complicity in scientific racism and sexism for having asserted that inequalities between white and black and between men and women were the ineradicable outcome of nature rather than the insidious work of culture. A new book on avowedly Darwinian approaches to psychology, linguistics or literary theory can still ignite a bonfire of partisan reviews and counter-reviews. Historians of science have in the past few decades meticulously documented how closely intertwined Darwin’s biological theories were with the most dismal strands of political economy, its Malthusian insistence on the inevitability of hunger and death. Yet Darwin the man remains irresistibly sympathetic, charming the most hard-boiled reader with candid doubts about his own arguments, stories about his pet dogs, or a flowering of Miltonian metaphor amid a dry description of gaps in the fossil record.

There is, too, the paradox of the likeable, plodding genius. Kant famously doubted whether even Newton could qualify as a true genius, since all science, however difficult, could in principle be taught to others, while authentic genius defied imitation. Once the Romantics commandeered the notion of genius, inimitable originality came to be fused with Byronic extravagance or melancholy solitude: Wordsworth’s Newton ‘voyaging through strange seas of thought, alone’. The genius breaks the mould of past thought, and is isolated by prescience and profundity from ordinary mortals; genius commands awe, not affection. These otherworldly associations still shape the prevailing mythology of modern scientific geniuses, despite the countervailing biographical evidence: abstracted Einstein, ethereal Oppenheimer, disembodied Hawking.

On this view it is perfectly acceptable, even predictable, that the budding genius should make a poor academic showing early in life, pointing up the distance between inspiration and convention. In this regard, Darwin made a promising start with his lacklustre school record, calling down his father’s fury when he fled medical school in Edinburgh: ‘You care for nothing but shooting, dogs and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family.’ But at some point, preferably before the age of thirty, the standard script demands that the fireworks begin (and the preferred metaphors are indeed pyrotechnical: ‘explosions’, ‘flashes’, ‘illuminations’). With a loud bang and a dazzling burst of brilliance, the young genius, driven by an inner daemon, destroys the old order and erects a new one in its place. When the Origin was published, by contrast, Darwin was a placid, middle-aged country gentleman and doting paterfamilias, who described his own foremost scientific talents as perseverance and attention to detail. No one doubted that he had brought about a revolution, but in his amiable ordinariness he was a most unlikely candidate for genius.

Janet Browne’s magisterial two-volume biography of Darwin takes as its epigraph a line from The Woman in White: ‘We don’t want genius in this country, unless it is accompanied by respectability.’ Darwin was a genius tailor-made to Victorian measure, a genius of the slow accumulation of facts and ideas in methodically kept notebooks. He was not eccentric, much less erratic. He prided himself on prudent investments and punctually answered letters. His sense of gentlemanly honour included his charitable duties to the parish poor, the care required to make a reliable observation in natural history, and the obligation to deal fairly with a rival in a ticklish matter of scientific priority. In his youth he had craved adventure in the form of a five-year round-the-world voyage on HMS Beagle, but Navy life and roughing it in the wildest parts of South America only cemented the routines that sustained his life thereafter. Browne goes so far as to compare his Kentish country house, Down, to a ‘self-contained, self-regulating scientific ship methodically ploughing onwards through the waves outside . . . almost as if he were on the Beagle again, sailing into some unknown port, where people felt it was a natural consequence of English life that he should ask and that they should do.’

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